A Time to Laugh, by Reed Lackey

2 Nov

Superhero movies are supposed to be filled with action, suspense, and occasionally gravitas. Very few of them, if any, have ever been focused primarily on laughs. Sure, the occasional witty catch phrase or clever retort has always been a functional element of superhero stories (I’m looking at you Spidey). But rarely, if ever, has a legitimized superhero film attempted to be a straight-forward comedy.

Enter Thor: Ragnarok. Led by rising director Taika Waititi, this adventure goes beyond previous forays into light-hearted storytelling that we saw with Ant-Man and even the very first Iron Man installment to structure its rhythm with humor rather than suspense. There are rarely more than five minutes which go by without either a funny line of dialogue, a clever sight gag, or even a direct slapstick punchline. The results are a film which will massively appeal to anyone wanting a fun time at the cinema, but will likely disappoint those who prefer the grittier and edgier trend of films like The Dark Knight, Batman V Superman, or even the Captain America films.

The premise is surprisingly rather grave. A prophecy foretells that the fire god Surtur will arise to bring forth Ragnarok, a destructive apocalypse which will annihilate all of Asgard. Believing he has successfully stopped it, Thor returns to Asgard only to discover that his trickster brother Loki, has set in motion a chain of events which threatens to bring about something even worse than Ragnarok: the return of their long-banished sister, Hela – the Goddess of Death (played by Cate Blanchett). The particulars of the plot deserve to be experienced as they occur, so suffice it to say that the first thirty minutes leaves precious little hope for a happy ending.

Except that the laughs literally never slow down. With so much persistent levity, there is a constant thread of confidence that somehow all will be well. And while this did manage to undermine some of the threat and suspense, it was a veritable breath of pure, fresh air. It was all but impossible not to smile at the sheer wackiness of Thor’s and Loki’s adventure through a distant planet that seems to somehow be in love with 1980s Earth. The retro-futuristic style of both the settings and the soundscape tap into the current trend in film and television to acknowledge that most of us kinda miss the 80s and the fun most of our entertainment had then.

If you’ve seen the trailers for this film, you’ll know of at least one friendly character who shows up and I’m delighted to tell you that there are a couple of other surprises in store as well. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston seem to be having more fun than they’ve had since the first Avengers film. Cate Blanchett deliciously embraces her villainous role and Mark Ruffalo proves yet again why we adore both The Hulk and Puny Banner. But adding both a level of meta-fandom and an even greater sense of comic absurdity is the hysterical performance by Jeff Goldblum, who gobbles up every possible moment like it’s a fat, juicy steak. His presence cements the film’s intention to make you laugh as often as possible and Waititi clearly gave each of the performers a blank check to indulge as much of their comedic fancy as they wished (it’s even reported that the majority of the individual dialogue was improvised).

But this is not to say that there are no stakes or gravity whatsoever. By the film’s end, I was shocked to discover that at least four things had irrevocably changed for some of our characters. The film surprisingly defies the typical tradition to reset everything back to normalcy by the end credits. By the time this adventure concludes, Asgard and its people (including Thor) will never be the same. Yet, through it all, the film never misses a beat to subvert what would otherwise be an opportunity for raw emotion or even melodrama and spin a clever joke immediately afterwards. Every hard shot of liquor has an ice-cold, refreshing chaser waiting right on its heels. There are a handful of sweet and even moving character beats, but they never make more than a brief cameo appearance before we’re right back into the circus again.

The result is one of Marvel’s most accessibly delightful films yet. Even if you know nothing of the character histories, the backgrounds of certain object mechanics, or even the weight behind certain smaller interactions, the film gives you just enough context to make the proper connections and enough energy to propel you past any potential question marks.

If you’re in the mood for something heavy and dour, this isn’t your film. But goodness gracious – if you want to have a fun, great time at the movies – you need to see Thor: Ragnarok as fast as you possibly can.

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